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Samsung suffers backlash in China over smartphone response

ASSOCIATED PRESS
BEIJING - SEOUL
Published
An assistant demonstrates the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone to a visitor at a Samsung Electronics display booth during an electronics expo in Beijing. An assistant demonstrates the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone to a visitor at a Samsung Electronics display booth during an electronics expo in Beijing.

China should be a bright spot for Samsung as it wrestles with a global recall of 2.5 million of its new flagship smartphones. However its brand has been battered by complaints that it is doing too little to reassure Chinese owners

Liu Jingtang was a Samsung loyalist. The Shanghai technology consultant traded up steadily through its smartphones to the new Note 7. But Liu's devotion was shaken by the Korean tech giant's confusing response to its latest product safety scare. Liu, 32, said Samsung Electronics quickly confirmed his Note 7 wasn't covered by a recall announced last week. But he said after reports China might have suffered its first explosion of the problem-plagued phone, Samsung's announcement that it saw no problem with the battery with no other explanation left him baffled.

"My loyalty to Samsung is bound to decline by a lot," said Liu. "Samsung was my priority, but not anymore."

China should be a bright spot for Samsung as it wrestles with a global recall of 2.5 million of its new flagship smartphones. The company has not confirmed any in China suffer the same problems that led to fires in the United States. But its brand has been battered by complaints it is doing too little to reassure Chinese owners their handsets are safe.

The potential damage to its image threatens to disrupt Samsung's efforts to use the Note 7 to propel faster growth in a crowded Chinese market where it has slipped to sixth place after being the No. 1 brand as recently as mid-2014.

Chinese consumers are unusually alert to safety issues following an avalanche of scandals over shoddy or fake food, medicines and other goods. They also are sensitive about being treated as well as Western consumers.

"I think consumers are pretty unhappy with Samsung," said Ben Cavender of China Market Research Group. "Consumers start to feel like they are being taken advantage of, that they are not being accorded the same respect here as they are abroad."

Asked what it was doing to reassure Chinese consumers, Samsung said in a statement it is confident about the safety of Note 7s sold by authorized outlets.

IKEA suffered a similar backlash in June after the Swedish furniture recalled dressers in the United States and Canada due to concerns they could tip over and harm children. When the company didn't immediately do the same in China, people posted angry comments online asking whether it valued Chinese lives less. IKEA announced a recall in China in July.

Samsung has blamed the fires on a manufacturing flaw in batteries and said Note 7 units sold in China would not be affected because theirs came from a different supplier.

On Monday, Samsung said its investigation into the first report of a Galaxy Note 7 fire in China found unspecified "external factors" might be to blame. It said it was unable to investigate a second fire report because the consumer refused to hand over the charred phone.

Liu, the technology consultant, said the statement made him question why Note 7 phones sold in China would be different from those sold abroad.

"They hastily put out this statement. Was that really good? I think it was unsatisfactory," said Liu. As for external factors, he said, "does that mean the customer deliberately heated it over a fire? That doesn't make much sense."

Samsung surprised customers by saying no phones in China were covered by its global recall and then recalling 1,858 phones. It said those were distributed for testing before sales to the public began.

Meanwhile, Samsung says it has received three reports of Galaxy Note 7 battery fires in China.

The company said yesterday that Samsung and its battery supplier Amperex Technology Ltd. had investigated two of those cases in China and found the cause of the fires was external.

Samsung was unable to obtain the sample for the reported third Note 7 fire because the consumer refused to hand in the phone.

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